Michael Cox suggests why facing Everton on the Toffees' patch is a positive thing for the Reds...
In an otherwise depressing season for Manchester United, one reason for positivity is the club’s away record.
Somewhat surprisingly, David Moyes’ side have earned more points on their travels than any other Premier League club in 2013/14. The problems have come in their home matches, where 10 other clubs have collected more points than United.
The Reds haven’t conceded a goal in their last five away matches, and after a goalless draw against Arsenal, have recorded a 2-0 win over Crystal Palace, a 3-0 victory at West Brom, a 2-0 success at West Ham, and a 4-0 thrashing of Newcastle United. Away from home, United appear unstoppable.
There are probably two reasons for the disparity between their home and away form. The first is simple: pressure. United know they’re enduring their worst campaign in the Premier League era, and while the supporters started the season fully in support of Moyes, there have understandably been murmurings of discontent in recent weeks. The recent plane banner at the Aston Villa match is precisely the sort of distraction United’s players don’t need when they’re struggling at Old Trafford, and simply helps remind them of their current failings.
In those kinds of situations it’s often easier to play away, and this arguably suits Moyes’ tactical approach too. United have been reactive this season, and are better when breaking swiftly rather than when attempting to unlock a packed defence, as they’ve so often failed to do at Old Trafford. They prefer it when opponents come onto them.
Goodison's a good 'un
A trip to Moyes’ former club Everton, then, might be a decent fixture for United. Under Roberto Martinez, Everton play a more proactive style of football, dominating possession within the opposition half and playing with great width on both flanks by pushing the full-backs forward. This could be perfect for United’s counter-attacks.
The problem, however, is that Everton are extremely intelligent in the way they attack, and guard against counter-attacks methodically. Both Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman advance down the flanks, but Everton always retain a solid defensive square in the centre of the pitch.
The roles of Gareth Barry and James McCarthy have been crucial in this approach this season – both are positionally disciplined, reliable with their use of the ball, and physical presences too. Against big sides, neither advance from their deep midfield roles, protecting Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka (or his replacement in recent weeks, the impressive youngster John Stones).
In midweek, against a Crystal Palace side that sits very deep, Martinez went for a more attacking option – dropping McCarthy and instead using Ross Barkley in one of the deep midfield roles alongside Barry. On paper it made sense, but Everton were much more exposed defensively and conceded three goals at home – against the division’s least prolific side going into the game. McCarthy and Barry will resume their partnership this weekend.
Overcoming this two-man barrier will be key to United’s chances of defeating Everton this weekend. Whereas Moyes traditionally likes width, and switching play to the flanks quickly, in recent away games he hasn’t played a pure winger like Antonio Valencia. Instead, his attacking band of three has been more fluid – having used Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Adnan Januzaj against Crystal Palace and West Brom, he’s since moved Rooney up front - a result of Robin Van Persie's knee injury - and played Mata as the No.10, with Shinji Kagawa and Ashley Young either side.
The balance from this trio has been very good – Kagawa appears to have a great natural relationship with Mata. The Japanese playmaker drifts inside to combine with Mata between the lines, which was particularly obvious against West Ham.
Young, on the right, stays wider and stretches the play to prevent United become too congested in central positions, and provides crossing from the flank.
Assuming Moyes continues with Kagawa, Mata and Young, United will need good performances from all three to thrive on the break against Everton. Mata and Kagawa will combine by taking up clever positions, both in front of and in advance of Barry and McCarthy, while Young will offer an alternative option and allow United to go around the Everton midfield duo – perhaps exploiting the space vacated by Baines’s forward advances.
Of course, all this depends on Everton playing positively and seeing plenty of the ball, allowing United the counter-attack opportunities they don’t have at Old Trafford. In a sense, Moyes is returning home – but he’ll be thankful his side are playing away.